Social Life

Letter from Hattie to Father, January 10, 1880

Letter from Hattie to her Father

about the frequency of social obligations

An important part of the Noyes' missionary life was social gatherings. In one letter to her father, Harriet mentions that she hopes the New Year will bring fewer social outings, but that they have been a necessary part of the past year. As part of a community of foreigners living within close proximity of each other, it is no wonder that these social evenings were an integral part of the mission community in Guangzhou. But what exactly did one of these social nights look like for a group of missionaries in the 19th century?

Letter from Hattie to Mattie, December 28, 1883

Letter to Mattie about Hattie's quiet

night at home

In a letter to Mattie, Harriet notes that "constant visiting and having visitors" is a hallmark of missionary life. In order to secure a quiet night at home in order to write letters to her family, Harriet has to write to Dr. and Mrs. Graves that they should not come by for a visit that night, prompting worries about Harriet's own cruelty.


Letter from Hattie to Mother, August 9, 1873

Singing "Mr. & Mrs. Brown" at the

next social meeting, 1873

Music was one hallmark of missionary social life. In a letter from 1873, Harriet notes that her mother may be distressed with the choice of music as Harriet has asked for a copy of- "Mr. and Mrs. Brown," a song about a married couples' scruples with each other. Harriet reassures her mother that even missionaries "like to have something to laugh at once in a while ... [not] to any alarming extent."

Social Groups

Letter from Henry to Edward, September 17, 1887

Henry's description of "The

Mutual Improvement Association,"


However, social nights did not consist solely of singing. When detailing the meeting of what is called "The Mutual Improvement Association," Henry Varnum notes that gatherings consisted of "singing declamation, lectures, &c." Henry notes that the society has been more of a success than could be imagined, facilitating the mixing of missionaries with customs staff.

Section of Letter from Hattie and Electa

Account of Hattie's

50th-anniversary celebration

Along with music and lectures, the missionary society in Guangzhou seems to have enjoyed a good laugh. For Harriet's celebration of fifty years in China, the mission put on a series of plays mocking elements of missionary life - the description of the mission as "the Gospel stuffing school," the amount of red tape used by the Presbyterian Church, and Paul's thoughts about Union. The fiftieth-anniversary celebration also included a drama about courting in missionary society.


Letter from Henry to Father, January 13, 1880

Letter from Henry to his father

about New Years' celebrations

As foreigners in a foreign land, the Canton missionary community often found the opportunity to come together and support each other in their American traditions - from the 4th of July to funerals. While they celebrated in traditional American fashion, they also participated in Chinese traditions (such as Chinese New Year) and created their own traditions, as we can see in a letter from Henry to his father in 1880.


Overall, social life in Guangzhou for missionaries was close-knit, conservative, and constant. The missionaries were dedicated to improving themselves and their companions, native Chinese or American, as well as supporting each other. Social events took the form of evenings of music, group gatherings discussing literature and lectures, and traditional gatherings for American holidays.